The Emergence of the Concept of Terrorism and Associated Conceptual Variations

This definitional work was mainly done by experts on terrorism and then governmental security agencies. While it did not make it possible to fix the concept of terrorism in a single and definitive definition,15 it afforded an opportunity for three series of key operations that problematized violence anew.

Terrorism as Political Violence

The first of these series made it possible to specify the relationship between terrorism and violence and the state, both conceptually and in terms of the positivities of the violence singled out by the concept of terrorism: kidnapping, hostage taking, aircraft hijacking, attacks and so on. Conceptually, terrorism was initially subsumed under the concept of violence: a crucial operation because it facilitated an understanding of terrorism as violence rather than, for example, as the combat tactic referred to by the word terrorism (cf. above). A second operation then made it possible to differentiate such “terrorist violence” from state violence: an extraordinary coup by the “discourse-expert” of the 1970s and 1980s whereby “terrorist violence” came to be understood exclusively as violence by individuals, while being fixed in a singular relationship to the state since it was presented as directed against it. Thus, “terrorist violence” was identified as and dubbed fundamentally political because, over and above its direct victims, it targets the “quintessential” institution of political modernity.

This specification of “terrorist violence” by the criterion of the political had two major consequences. The first was that it ruled out any possibility of subsuming the concept of terrorism under that of crime—and thus, in the case of the police, resorting to criminal law to fight terrorism. Hence, the recourse by governments to “regimes of exception,” whose declaration stems not so much from the allegedly exceptional nature of the violence as the maladaptation of the law when faced with a violence that has gradually been exceptionalized, because it was extruded from the register of criminal violence—which is completely different. The second consequence of the specification of terrorist violence by the concept of “political” was to establish the figure of the “terrorist” in discourse alongside that of the criminal, with which it is not to be confused. Even so, this figure of the “terrorist” could not be rendered equivalent with the figure of the political enemy as it had hitherto functioned in the modern problematization of violence, precisely because a terrorist is not the agent of any state. Hence, the concept—as legally fluid as it is ideologically dangerous—of “unlawful combatant,” developed by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration to permit the imprisonment on Guantanamo of individuals captured in the many theaters of the “Global War on Terror.” Neither criminal nor political enemy, since the mid-1980s and initial attempts to theorize an “enemy criminal law,”16 the terrorist has been the figure on which local/national legal orders (criminal law) and the supranational legal order of international humanitarian law (laws of war) can converge. As for terrorism, it may be understood as the concept that, in and through the new segmentation of violence it has operated from the late 1960s in the modern problematization of violence, has opened up an area of indeterminacy of crime and war “between” individual violence and state violence where, consequently, the aforementioned category of terrorism could develop. An area of indeterminacy which is also a site of redifferentiation of legitimate violence, for the violence assigned to the category of terrorism will in return legitimate anti-terrorism as a specific domain of intervention by the coercive state apparatuses, with the constitution of a specific anti-terrorist apparatus gradually equipped with its own savoir. Neither precisely police nor specifically military, the latter draws on the savoir of intelligence as regards information collection—a necessary consequence of a new spatialization of violence.

Terrorism as a Spatially Distributed Potentiality of Violence In an extension of the reference to fear (see above), the positivities of violence thus abstracted in and through the concept of terrorism are no longer defined solely by reference to the actual use of physical violence, but also by “the threat of use of violence.” We find this reference to threat in most of the definitions of terrorism by US government security agencies. From the late 1970s onwards, it made possible a new segmentation of violence, placing not only the violent act (the physical violence perpetrated in breaking a law or armed aggression) at the center of an understanding of terrorist violence, but also the possibility of its irruption, therewith freeing historically legitimized violence from the temporal limits to which the modern problematization of violence had confined it.

This assimilation of the concepts of terrorism and threat has had two major consequences. On the one hand, it has tilted the organized relationship to violence in time in the direction of its potentiality. As a result, the violent act is no longer understood as what opens up the possibility of the legitimate use of violence by the state, but as the tipping point from a generalized state of threat into a state of emergency. The former—the generalized state of threat—is the time prior to the irruption of violence when individuals are enjoined to subjectify themselves as “vulnerable subjects,” while governments work to legitimate the means of anticipating such violence.17 The state of emergency then becomes the time immediately following the irruption of violence, when the means of resilience, and for managing the consequences of a violent act are activated.18

The second consequence was the particular spatiality attributed to terrorist violence via the assimilation of the concepts of terrorism and network. We encounter the concept of network in various strata of discourse: in the 1950s and 1960s, when terrorism was associated with guerrilla activities in an account that described insurgents as “underground networks concealed among populations” (see above); in CIA reports, which from the 1970s evoked terrorism in terms of a transnational violence cutting across the structures of the modern international; in legal definitions of terrorism as well—in the USA, where it is defined as violence “transcending national boundaries,” or in France where it is characterized as an “association of criminals bound up in a terrorist enterprise.”19 Since the mid-1990s, all the talk has been of “terrorist networks.” The network is thus identified as the spatiality peculiar to “terrorist violence”—regarded, let us remember, more in its potentiality than its actuality. The network form (see Mattelart in this volume), in fact, imposed as the image of the special space of the threat. This is the meaning of warnings about “terrorism liable to strike anywhere at any time.”

The divorce of the concept of terrorism from territory mirrors the growing proximity between the concepts of terrorism and network. In accounts of terrorism, territory is neither what terrorists build their authority and power on nor is it that which contains them or limits their reach. For clandestine organizations that derive their extreme mobility from their agents, territory is now merely an interchangeable base/support. Thus, the “global war on terrorism” has taken the form of a defense of “modern spatiality” and its inter-state system as the exclusive form of organization of human societies, in accordance with the watchword: “no future outside the state-form ... even when the state is called upon to radically transform itself in order to fight this new form of violence effectively.”

The discursive operation whereby, from the mid-twentieth century onwards, the emergence of the concept of terrorism opened up a new problematization of violence is also that whereby the security architectures of modern states have themselves molted into a rhizomatic structure, which would enable them—or so the argument goes—to respond to the security imperatives of a world that is apprehended and represented less via the territorial model and its state-form than by means of a technical model and its network form. So it is no surprise if the computer science and information technology savoir—whose assignment of centrality to the concept of network is well known—connect up so compliantly with those of security and the emergent anti-terrorist savoir. It is not because their computational mode is “naturally” more apt to respond to an alleged new kind of threat. If the anti-terrorist savoir and that of information technology and computer science seem so disposed today to connect up, it is because they have come to share the concept of network around which the savoirs of security, hitherto so firmly attached to the tutelary figure of the state, have been reconfigured, along with the concrete practices of their agents—networked police, network-centric warfare, electronic i ntelligence—to the point of inducing a new technology of government wholly geared toward anticipation.

 
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